Monday, July 30, 2007

RC Helicopter

I bought toy RC helicopter! I had seen this thing at Fry's a couple times and I broke down and bought it the other day for my birthday. It was actually $10 more expensive at Fry's than shown here on Amazon. It's a lot more fun than I imagined it would be. It's also a lot harder than I imagined. It's more of a toy than a traditional RC helicopter. It has only 2 channels, and I'm still not sure if those have ANY effect on the direction of flight. I must have spent 30 minutes in my back yard repeatedly doing this: launch, crash, repeat. It was consuming. Sorta like the way it would understandably work on a 12 year old boy. Maybe we don't grow out of that kind of thing.

It weighs so little that it can even trip over the grass in the yard and it has a rotational bias causing it to spin without some very carefully applied controls. I still can't get it to maintain a steady bearing. It launches very fast and quickly gets way too high. But then I just let off the power and let it drop, then reapply power to decelerate (or even stop) before hitting the grass. It is certainly not an indoor toy, but it seems to have enough power to work fine in the back yard. This was sooo fun! It makes me want to get a real RC helicopter. I figured it'd last a couple days before I crashed it. The package includes information and a website URL for buying replacement parts! How prescient, they are.

So, I had some fun this weekend, and never did quite get the hang of it. Then I took it over to some friends' house and we all took turns flying it around their back yard. I'm not sure "flying" is the right word to use. It was more like: launching it and desperately trying to control the spin before it soared too high or drifted into the shrubs, flowers, lawn, kids' slide, or house. It's very fun! It's sorta addicting. You want to keep trying it, because with each attempt you seem to gain a little more feel for it. It lands/crashes with a bounce on the grass, and even on the patio. Plants safely snare it with no damage. And then it happened.

Thrilled with the joy of magically getting it to fly around the back yard, Kendra was not able to avoid the house that approached dangerously. In her defense, we have yet to actually control its direction. It dropped quickly after one of its main rotors broke off. Still fun, actually. Now I get to repair it. Wes suggested this is a great opportunity to modify the tail rotor to hopefully reduce the wild spinning. If you haven't tried these things, then you should. Great food for the kid inside us all.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Richistan

I just finished the book titled "Richistan" by Robert Frank. The book is about rich people. But not just the millionaire next door kind of rich people. This book is about the obscenely rich people, their lifestyles, their problems, and their luxuries. Frank is a writer for the Wall Street Journal, and even authors their related blog "The Wealth Report" where he posts about a variety of topics surrounding the mystique that is the uber-rich. His latest post is about Larry Ellison's apparent plans to have a new yacht custom built for him because his current one, Rising Sun, is too big. I doubt Frank will be posting anything even mildly negative about zillionaire Rupert Murdoch any time soon.

The book currently has 4.5 (of 5) stars from 15 Amazon reviewers. Here's the publisher's site for this book. I enjoyed this book. Mostly because it presented me with a lot of information that I hadn't previously known. I learned from it. I'm not sure that the knowledge is useful. But it's definitely interesting. The first chapter grabbed me with a description of the booming market in butlers and related household staff brought about by the boom in millionaries. This demand has even spawned several new schools that focus on training young people for those roles. They have the contemporary title of "household manager" and even get certified as CHM (Certified Household Manager). Not surprisingly, the successful ones tend to be very adept at wrangling spreadsheets and managing contractors, vendors, subordinate staff, and even the family members. One school he highlited is the Starkey Institute in Denver and also mentioned related jobs sites for would be neuvo-butlers like EstateJobs.com.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Blog Format Changes

You may have noticed a slight change in the formatting of this blog. I migrated from the Blogger Classic CSS Template to the new Google/Blogger "Layout" style. I will be slowly tweaking the new template XML in order to regain some of the nicer styles that I was previously using. I had to migrate in order to continue my practice of changing the header pic on a semi-regular basis. Recent changes to Blogger's back-end engine were preventing me from using newly posted pics for my header. It's no big deal, and I enjoy the chance to learn the new XML methods. I apologize for the main page displaying all posts this year. I've configured the settings to display 30 days of posts, but that doesn't seem to have taken.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Tiger Customization: Remove Google Search from Safari Header

Here's another way I tweaked Tiger in order to revert to an old Panther style. I'm a bit of a minimalist and prefer to not see (or use) the Google search field that is now in the top of every Safari window just to the right of the location field. Unfortunately, the preferences don't allow removaI of this. However, I removed it with very little effort.

Right click on Safari.app and select "Show Package Contents". Then browse down to Contents/Resources/English.lproj where you'll find ToolbarItems.nib. Double click to open this in Interface Builder (you must have the developer packages installed). Double click on the location field widget in the construction window. You'll notice that the google search field is tied to it. Then single-click on the Google field. A black border will appear. Hit the delete key and it will disappear. Save and exit. Repair permissions to get them set properly for that file. Then Safari will no longer show the Google search field.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Fructose Might Not Be So Sweet

I strongly encourage everyone to listen to this podcast produced by the ABC about some recent research in the US about the potential down side of fructose. They interviewed Dr. Robert Lustig, who is a Professor of Pediatric Endocrinology at UCSF. This weekly podcast is called The Health Report and is one of many terrific science and health podcasts produced by the ABC. According to this bio page, Dr. Lustig graduated from MIT and Cornell before his research career.

This interview carries an important message because fructose has insinuated itself so deeply into American society. I learned this from reading "The Omnivore's Dilemma" which I blogged about here. Fructose is a monosaccharide carbohydrate. A simple sugar. It's the namesake ingredient of HFCS (High Fructose Corn Syrup), which is in almost everything we eat, and in many things we don't eat. An interesting thing I learned from this podcast was that HFCS doesn't contain as much fructose as I imagined. As confirmed by the Wikipedia page on HFCS, fructose comprises nominally around 42 to 55% of HFCS. The rest being glucose.

Dr. Lustig describes the detrimental down stream effects of consuming large quantities of fructose. I would surely butcher his message if I attempted to outline it here. It's just complicated enough that mainstream media would utterly fail at communicating this to anyone, and still straight foward enough that any intelligent person will readily grasp the string of causal relationships. Please take 30 minutes of your day and listen to this piece. We can all make our own decisions. But we make better ones when we have more information.

Flash Now Works in Safari

After upgrading to Tiger, at some time that I can't precisely mark, Flash stopped working in Safari 2. This was sad. While I like blocking flash-based ads, I do enjoy the flash-based content on many web sites (YouTube, Google Video, etc.). I've been trying everything I can think of for about a week now and this morning I finally got it working again. I won't bore readers with a list of the many things that failed. Instead, I'll just say what worked. I deleted all of the flash application files that were on my system (the installer places files for all the browsers it finds). Then I downloaded and installed the latest version of flash. Easy. I'm kicking myself for not trying that sooner.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Tiger Customization: Prevent PDF Viewing in Safari

Here's another thing I customized in my new Tiger OS. I had grown to really like the old Safari behavior with PDF files, where it would simply download them. This allows me to choose what PDF viewer to use. If it's a simple file, then I use Preview. If it's a form or if it contains annotations or other advanced PDF features, then I use Acrobat. I don't prefer the default behavior of the new Safari 2 browser, which will display the file within the browser. Here's how I reverted to my preference.

I simply edited the file ~/Library/Preferenecs/com.apple.Safari.plist using Property List Editor. I added a child named WebKitOmitPDFSupport of the type boolean with the value Yes. That did it. When I tried to accomplish the same thing using the shell command "defaults write com.apple.Safari WebKitOmitPDFSupport -bool YES" nothing happened. I even did it with Safari closed. hmmmm Well, it's no big deal. It got done.

Custom Firewall Setup for Tiger

I recently had to upgrade to Tiger (in order to sync with my new iPhone) and I've been totally buried in all the changes from Panther. In this post, I'll describe the simple method to use ipfw with custom firewall settings (actually, in Tiger it's ipfw2 but the binary is still "ipfw"). Like most unix wonks, I prefer to customize the firewall settings using the /etc/ipfw.conf file. This allows me to impose stricter security on my home network. For example, by default my mac system does not trust anything from my windows system.

In Panther, I edited /System/Library/StartupItems/NetworkExtensions/NetworkExtensions to startup ipfw with my config file using /sbin/ipfw -q /etc/ipfw.conf That was simple.

The many changes to Tiger include ipfw getting launched a new way: by launchd. I like Apple's implementation of launchd, and I'm eager to see what they've changed for Leopard. Here's what I did to enable ipfw to be launched with my settings.

Step #1) Create a plist file that launchd will always use.

I created a text file of XML and named it: /Library/LaunchDaemons/ipfw_startup.plist. I created it in TextEdit, but you can use anything. It's just XML. You can see that it gives the path to the script that I want launchd to execute on system startup.

<?xml version=\"1.0\" encoding=\"UTF-8\"?>
<!DOCTYPE plist PUBLIC \"-//Apple Computer//DTD PLIST
1.0//EN\" \"http://www.apple.com/DTDs/PropertyList-1.0.dtd\">
<plist version=\"1.0\">
<dict>
<key>Label</key>
<string>ipfw_startup</string>
<key>ProgramArguments</key>
<array>
<string>/usr/local/bin/ipfw_startup</string>
</array>
<key>RunAtLoad</key>
<true/>
</dict>
</plist>


Step #2) Create a shell script to start ipfw.

I created the shell script /usr/local/bin/ipfw_startup. The contents are shown below. You can see that I startup ipfw using my ipfw.conf settings file, and then it turns on logging. Lastly, I like to have some confirmation that it was started using my rules. I got tired of using: sudo ipfw list

#!/bin/sh

##
# Start Tiger's ipfw2 using my custom rule set
##

/sbin/ipfw -q /etc/ipfw.conf
/usr/libexec/ipfwloggerd
sysctl -w net.inet.ip.fw.verbose=1
sysctl -w net.inet.ip.fw.verbose_limit=50

date >> /TESTING/ipfwtest.log
echo "Started ipfw2 with my custom ruleset" >> /TESTING/ipfwtest.log

Be sure to create those files as root, or change their group and ownership settings appropriately.

For more information about Tiger's startup sequence and the role of launchd, Apple has decent documentation at this page. I recommend downloading the PDF using the link in the upper left corner of the page. Finally, for those readers that also want to post HTML/XML code on Blogger - I used this handy-dandy escape-code generation page.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Under the Banner of Heaven

I just finished listening to the audiobook version of "Under the Banner of Heaven: A story of Violent Faith" by Jon Krakauer. It currently has 4 of 5 stars from 627 Amazon reviewers. Krakauer is famous for his earlier book titled "Into Thin Air" with his first-hand account of a Mt. Everest climbing disaster. Far from that topic, this new book is about fundamentalists in the LDS church. I'd like to think that mainstream Mormons are disturbed by some of the things described in the book, which contains a lot of coverage of Ron and Dan Lafferty's murder of their younger brother's wife and baby daughter. The book was enlightening and filled with information I had never known about the history of the Mormon church and the practices of some fundamentalist branches.

The audiobook is read by the author, and that often adds value to the material, preventing any undesireable influences in the material from vocal intonations, inflections, etc. In this case, however, the author's voice is a bit soporific. Regardless, I recommend this book to anyone interested in the lives of others. We live in a world filled with other people who were raised differently than ourselves, hold different beliefs, and aspire to different goals. I think it's important to learn as much as we can, to be open to different things, and to make the most of our time here. Note: that doesn't mean I agree with the fundamentalist views and practices described in the book. I will sleep better thinking that they are a small minority, but it does make me curious. Curious about the book's accuracy. Curious about the normal things like: who, how many, where. And curious about how we might help those who would choose to leave that system. Who would choose the brave path of exercising choice.

How Did My Last Quarter's Stock Picks Do?

On March 25, I posted a few stocks that had made it to my watch list. They were: CHAP, PCP, GT, SHW, and T. Once again, I'm sad to have not put any money into these positions because they performed better than most of the positions that I held this past quarter. CHAP gained 50%, but that was mostly due to their public search for somebody to buy their company and the recent news of their pending acquisition by Gerdau Ameristeel (GNA). PCP is up 27%. GT has gained 19%. SHW dropped 1%. And finally, T gained 4%, which is much less than I would have expected. I suspect that T (ATT) will rise more after their upcoming earnings call due to any news quantifying the growth of customers resulting from iPhone users who left other providers.

My current watch list favorites include members off 3 areas: oil, international infrastructure, and china. I am now watching COP, CBI, and FXI. I currently don't own these, although I did recently make a quick 6.2% over 7 weeks with CBI. I was tempted to stay long, but the indicators suggested I sell (the recent market drop) and I heeded them (for a change!).

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Climbing Wheeler Peak

Yesterday I climbed Wheeler Peak, the 2nd highest peak in Nevada. For the record: it's a class 2 hike. So today I'm tired, but not sore. The first photo here is one I took along the 3.5 mile trail. This section of the trail is relatively level and crosses through stands of aspen trees and then into the pine and bristlecone pines before getting above tree line over 11,000 ft.

Wheeler Peak is 13,065 ft tall and is the primary attraction for the remote Great Basin National Park. It took me 9 hours to drive from Pasadena to the park. To help you orient, here's a map showing where Wheeler Peak is located. Notice the green region marking the park. I camped at Wheeler Peak Campground. It's a terrific campground and I highly recommend it. It's located just a smidge below 10,000 ft elevation, so I could get a bit acclimated before my hike on the next day. It's got a stream running through it, as well as a nice meadow in the middle. Since there are no bears, the deer in the area seemed very habituated to people, as they didn't move away from me when I wandered the nearby woods to find firewood. I really enjoyed this campground. The temperatures were perfect: 70F at 7 pm.

The next photo shows the trailhead before I started. It was 6:30 am and there were only a few cars there. During my descent, I visited with a Park Ranger who was hiking up. He told me that the trailhead parking lot was full already. That wasn't too surprising because I had already seen loads of people hiking up the trail as I was descending.

The next photo is taken from Stella Lake, which is about 1 mile from the trail head. Unfortunately, the wind prevented me from catching a nice reflection on the lake's surface. Above 12,000 ft I had my normal shortness of breath, and so I had to use my proven method: look ahead about 15 ft for the next flatest section, hike to there, stop long enough for 3 breaths, then repeat.

The next 3 pics were taken from the summit. I wasn't alone up there, and more hikers kept arriving. It took me 3 hours and 20 minutes to reach the summit, and 2.5 hours to descend.

If you're interested in this hike, then I recommend reading the description by Christopher Brennen, who happens to be a Caltech professor. I brought his map, but found it wasn't needed. You can also consult the Wheeler Peak post on summitpost.org.

I strongly recommend the Wheeler Peak Campground. It's a terrific place to read, visit with friends, enjoy nature, or just recharge. Although it's a long drive (from anywhere), it's worth the trip and you should plan on at least 2 nights. If you've got the energy, then hike up the hill. The park flyer recommends starting early to avoid afternoon thunderstorms. I would strongly suggest you heed that advice. Between 4 and 6 pm the upper hill was shrouded in dark clouds and lots of thunder. Happily, no rain fell on the campground. Several people had setup inflated air mattresses on the edge of the meadow to sleep out under the stars. Cool.

If you'd like to have higher resolution image files, just ask. I've posted smaller versions to save space and to be kind to visitors.

A Good Book About Medicine

During my recent long drive, I listened to the audio version of "Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science" by Atul Gawande. It currently has 5/5 stars from 123 Amazon reviewers. I bought this one based entirely on my having enjoyed the author's other book: "Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance" (see below for that review). I enjoyed this one too. Although, I think I preferred the other book "Better."

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Earthquake Protection for my LCD TV

I finally got around to taking some steps to protect my LCD TV from an earthquake. There are lots of options available. I decided to go with the "TV Strap" product which I found at OSH. It turns out to be pretty simple and not-too-ugly.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

The Myths of Innovation

I finished the book I described below titled "The Myths of Innovation" by Scott Berkun. He's a former Microsoft developer. He's also authored a popular book on project management and I hope to read that soon.

I really enjoyed the book. It was interesting and easy to read. While covering a lot of ground that I'm already familar with, it brought up new insights into others that I've experienced but have never seen addressed. For example, why their manager is a natural enemy of innovators and how they can exercise their management role to support and help innovators. If you've got an interest in innovation and/or any twist on that, then I recommend this book.